A 4-Legged Approach to Clinical Education and Research In Southeastern Louisiana University’s Pet Project, therapy dogs bolster traditional clinic services. Academic Edge
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Academic Edge  |   May 01, 2018
A 4-Legged Approach to Clinical Education and Research
Author Notes
  • Rebecca Davis, AuD, CCC-A, is the program director and an associate professor in the Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD) program at Southeastern Louisiana University. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Group 10, Issues in Higher Education. rebecca.davis-2@selu.edu
    Rebecca Davis, AuD, CCC-A, is the program director and an associate professor in the Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD) program at Southeastern Louisiana University. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Group 10, Issues in Higher Education. rebecca.davis-2@selu.edu×
  • Also contributing to this article were Southeastern Louisiana University CSD faculty Aimee Adams, MA, CCC-SLP, clinical educator and clinic director, and Ashley Meaux, PhD, CCC-SLP, assistant professor.
    Also contributing to this article were Southeastern Louisiana University CSD faculty Aimee Adams, MA, CCC-SLP, clinical educator and clinic director, and Ashley Meaux, PhD, CCC-SLP, assistant professor.×
Article Information
Professional Issues & Training / Academic Edge
Academic Edge   |   May 01, 2018
A 4-Legged Approach to Clinical Education and Research
The ASHA Leader, May 2018, Vol. 23, 32-33. doi:10.1044/leader.AE.23052018.32
The ASHA Leader, May 2018, Vol. 23, 32-33. doi:10.1044/leader.AE.23052018.32
“It’s Oliver!” Joey says excitedly, as he answers my knock on the speech-language room door.
As Oliver and I join Joey and the speech-language pathology student clinician, Joey quickly sits down with a book to read to Oliver, his reading partner of six years. Joey is a 10-year-old who receives services in the Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic at Southeastern Louisiana University. Oliver is one of two golden retrievers in The Pet Project, an animal-assisted therapy (AAT) program.
I initiated The Pet Project in 2011 to complement the traditional university clinic services and to enhance clinical education for undergraduate and graduate students in communication sciences and disorders. The relationship between boy and dog encourages Joey to practice his reading skills, while Oliver listens attentively. Joey knows that when he finishes reading, his reward will be to play with Oliver.

Almost any client—regardless of age or disorder—can be a candidate for animal-assisted therapy, and it may be especially helpful for those who exhibit behavior challenges, need additional motivation or have an interest in animals.

The role of bonding
I’ve always had an interest in the bond between animals and humans and, with the help and support of fellow faculty members and the university administration, I decided to investigate the potential effect of this bond on communication. The project presents both practice and research opportunities: I received an internal research grant from the office of graduate studies to train Oliver for animal-assisted therapy and to investigate the technique’s effectiveness.
The Pet Project became a collaboration among clinical faculty, research faculty and students enrolled in clinical courses. Clinical educators and their student clinicians identify clients who may be potential candidates for AAT, which is considered an adjunct to traditional treatment.
Almost any client—regardless of age or disorder—can be a candidate, and it may be especially helpful for those who exhibit behavior challenges, need additional motivation or have an interest in animals. Once identified, a client (or caregiver) completes a survey about past experiences with animals to rule out any dog phobias or allergies.
As the dogs’ certified handler, I arrange a “meet and greet,” usually in my office, during which the clinician and client interact with the dogs and me. We determine if those interactions are conducive to developing an intervention plan that includes AAT—if so, we jointly develop the plan.
We have used AAT with clients across the lifespan with a variety of disorders, from children with speech-language delays and disorders to adults with aphasia. AAT can be included weekly to meet a specific goal—as with Joey, who is working on literacy skills and associates the dogs with his reading activities. Or AAT can be a one-time activity—a visit to our adult aphasia group, for example, where participants talk about their experiences with their own pets.
We also collaborate with research faculty, by identifying clients who might be appropriate for researchers’ protocols. Research faculty determine appropriate baseline data collection, ensure that sessions are videotaped, and analyze interactions with and without AAT to determine the effect of including AAT when paired with traditional approaches.
Reading rewards
Joey, who has receptive and expressive language disorder secondary to autism spectrum disorder, exemplifies the multi-layered collaboration of The Pet Project. Clinic director Aimee Adams identified Joey as a good candidate for AAT and, along with her clinicians, has used Oliver and Addy in Joey’s sessions in a variety of ways. Initially, they used Oliver in group activities with Joey to encourage his participation in circle time. As long as Oliver sat in the circle with him, Joey would sit and participate.
Now Oliver has become a communication partner for Joey, who reads to Oliver and talks to him and about him. Sometimes they engage in “training sessions,” during which Joey gives commands and Oliver performs the commands.
The impact on Joey’s reading has been most dramatic: Typically a reluctant reader, Joey shows more engagement in reading when Oliver is present. He associates Oliver with reading and initiates the reading activity when Oliver enters the therapy room.
Based on our success with Joey, we have expanded our research on the effect of AAT to other clients receiving reading intervention with our student clinicians. We hope to add to the body of research on the use of AAT in communication sciences and disorders, which—despite widespread anecdotal accounts of the benefits of AAT—is limited.
One of the ongoing challenges for AAT researchers is accessing an adequate sample size of matched subjects. However, our case study presentations have helped educate others in the field who are interested in developing their own animal-assisted therapy programs.
Across clients, we have seen gains in client motivation, behavior, compliance and progress toward therapy goals. Often it’s the clients who have been in treatment for a long time who benefit the most, as the dogs provide a welcome, novel way of working on objectives. The dogs also bring encouragement and a sense of enthusiasm to the families of our clients, faculty, students, staff and visitors to our building. In return, Oliver and Addy are never short on love and attention.
The Pet Project gives students an opportunity to incorporate another tool in their clinical planning. I give students information about Oliver and Addy and what to expect from the dogs, and suggest possible activities for their sessions. The students learn to adapt and adjust within sessions, as the interactions with the dogs are dynamic and require them to think on their feet. In a few cases, The Pet Project has allowed students to participate in clinical research that has led to professional presentations.

We hope to add to the body of research on the use of AAT in communication sciences and disorders—which, despite widespread anecdotal accounts of the benefits of AAT—is limited.

Some how-tos
The first step in developing an animal-assisted therapy program is to investigate your institution’s relevant policies and procedures. I had to verify acceptance by the university administration and ensure that liability concerns or insurance did not prohibit a program that would include the use of animals on campus. Some institutions may require a specific level of certification for animal-assisted therapy teams, which is available from a number of organizations. Oliver, Addy and I have certification from Pet Partners, Inc.
Next, establish a relationship with a therapy animal team. If you don’t want to become a handler yourself, you can solicit a volunteer team. Organizations such as Pet Partners have a directory of volunteer teams. Most of these organizations also provide liability coverage to teams who have certification.
If research is also part of your AAT program, you’ll need approval from your institutional review board. At Southeastern, I am also required to keep current approval from our Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee.
Last, set up a predictable, manageable schedule for visits. A reliable team is a must, so that continuity of care is maintained. Often, clients look forward to visits from the therapy dogs, and you want to be sure that the motivation and encouragement they provide is consistent.
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FROM THIS ISSUE
May 2018
Volume 23, Issue 5